When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (John 6:1-21)
About a year and a half or two years ago, my spouse and I attended a spaghetti dinner at what was our church at the time. Every year that church, like many, had a Spaghetti dinner. Historically it was organized by the Board of Christian Education and the church’s kids were serving the meals while the board members were cooking. That year, however, the Board of Christian Ed had decided to no longer organize the dinner and for a moment it seemed as if this annual event would have to become history, falling victim to an aging congregation with less new members and the same individuals volunteering again and again and again and burning out. God however had other plans, made visible when the diaconate of the church decided to take over the event planning. And so, the dinner took place as planned and it was widely advertised from the pulpit and even in neighboring churches as well as on the sign outside of the church.
And the evening of the dinner came, and members showed up in good numbers; everybody sat and ate while the kids were running back and forth between the kitchen and the fellowship hall, serving bread and salads and spaghetti. And then suddenly it happened - unexpected guests walked into the church’s fellowship hall. First one, then two, then more. Some of the guests were part of the homeless population that sought shelter at the church during the cold winter months, when the fellowship hall became a Cod Purple Shelter. They had seen the sign outside the church advertising the dinner and so they came. See, in the past the sign advertising the dinner also included the cost but that year it did not; therefore, people reading the sign assumed that the dinner was a free dinner, open to all. And so, they came and some even brought a friend.
At first church members wondered, “What do we do?” Nobody was quite sure how to respond and there was a silent moment, almost a pause in the action - I call those moment HUSH moments; moments where one can almost hear people holding their breath while the Spirit is moving around the room and something really, really significant is about to happen. And then someone got up, welcomed the guests, and told them to sit down and have a meal. Quickly the room sprang into action as a few church members showed the guests to seats at the tables while some others got out their wallets to pay for the guests’ meals, the kitchen took stock of their supplies, and kids rushed around the tables to bring new place settings and food, including bread. No one was turned away. All ate.
I think of that evening when I read about Jesus feeding 5000 and I think about all the ways grace abounded that day and all the ways in which God showed up. God was definitely there that night...
- God came in the decision to not turn away but to feed and faith that there would be enough.
- God came in those who paid for the unexpected guests.
- God came in the woman carrying her meager belongings in plastic bags so none of them would be lost.
- God came in the man who laughed and smiled at the table and who had brought a few of his friends.
- God came in the kids who were serving the meals.
- God came in the kitchen team that was cooking and plating.
- God came in the church members who took time to sit and talk with the guests.
- God came in the diversity that was suddenly there in that basement of the church.
- God came in full stomachs and warmed hearts.
….and God was beautiful.
And grace came not only in the bellies that were full but in all the other ways in which God provided fullness. I know I left dinner feeling full that evening. Not full so much of food but full from the conversations I had with guests and spiritually fed by the beauty of God’s presence and the beauty of God’s abundant grace. And it remained with me that night and into the next day.
I wonder if that is how, in our story, the disciples felt or even how the boy felt whose loaves and fishes became the meal that fed 5000. And I wonder: What did he do after he got home? Was he overwhelmed by what his small little lunch could do? Or was he worried what his mom would say? Maybe she had sent him to the market to buy the bread and the fish so the family could eat and the boy, curious about the crowd, got distracted and now his basket was empty. Barley loaves were certainly not the food of the rich at the time but that of the common people, and so it is unlikely could just go and buy more. Only broken up leftovers remained. Did Jesus give those to him?
The Bible is not always very good about details like that. The Bible is not good about consistency either – because each of the Gospels tells a very different story with some details and stories added while others are omitted. And yet, our reading today, the feeding of 5000, of this very large crowd that followed Jesus, is found in all four gospels. Two of the Gospels, Matthew and Mark, even added a second feeding – one of 4,000 instead of 5,000 and yet similar.[i] There is no doubt that the story “was deeply embedded in the earliest, most widespread traditions about Jesus”[ii] and that it was important – and it has remained important and been preserved through the centuries, taking its well-deserved place among many other beloved and well-known Bible stories, such as the good Samaritan or the story of the prodigal son – and like them, it teaches us about God and about the abundance of God’s grace that can accomplish a lot with very little. Abundance that exists even when all we see is scarcity – financially or emotionally, consciously or not. Maybe that is why it touches us so much – When things never feel enough, it provides us with hope.
There are so many times in my life when I feel as if there is nothing left to give, when I am running out of steam and my energy level points toward empty. Times where the bank account runs low, but the student loan bills become due while the car needs new tires, or where the 24 hours in a day just need 24 more hours to get things done. I am sure you all have had them. We all have those times when the requests put upon our time, talents, or treasure, alongside our own needs and those of the world, stare at us like 5000 hungry mouths to be fed on a hillside without a grocery store in sight.
During times like that, we, like the disciples, often get caught up in an economy of scarcity rather than an economy of God’s abundance. When Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (6:5), Phillip didn’t even stop and consider the question. Jesus never asked HOW but WHERE – Where will we get it? Who can provide? All Phillip could think was that there was not enough money to go around; even “six months’ wages could not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”. And Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, could only wonder “what are they among so many people” when he told Jesus about a little boy that had five barley loaves and two fish rather than see that this little boy may just be the means Jesus was asking for. Where all Philip and Andrew can see is scarcity and lack of resources and an inability to satisfy the hunger of the world, Jesus sees abundance. Where all they do is see the impossible, Jesus says, “WATCH ME!”
And through this story, God is asking us to see abundance – the abundance of the green grass where all can sit and are welcome and where abundance comes from whatever we can share out of what God has given us. Those barley loaves may not have been a triple club sandwich from a high-end sandwich store and the fish may have been a little small or even smelly, but they were enough. Enough to be taken by Jesus, to be blessed, to be broken, and to be given to those who were hungry. Enough for all to be fed. Enough for leftovers for latecomers. Enough for brown bags to be packed and taken home to those who couldn’t be there. Enough for the boy’s basket to still be filled so he doesn’t come home empty handed.
If we decide to share and let go of our fear of not being or having enough, we absolutely are enough and have enough bread or fish to feed the whole world. All we must do is to take the risk of allowing God to make a way. This isn’t an invitation to be give beyond our means or to dedicate every waking hour to service, but to discern where and how we can give back so all may be able to know and experience God’s abundant grace. Jesus wants us to take what we have, whatever it is, whatever is already here, and bless it, which means to give it to God, and to break it open, divide it up, and give it away. Joyfully. Yes, joyfully and without resentments or counting the cost. And it is about so much more than opening wallet and giving money.
Take, bless, break, give – that is what Jesus did in our reading when he accepted the boy’s offering, and these are also the actions of Holy Communion or Eucharist. Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. Take, bless, break, give – that is what Jesus does again and again in the scriptures when he shares a meal and that is also what Jesus does with his life. He lives it for God, he breaks it open, and gives it to us, all of us. And this is what Jesus wants us to do with our lives too. We become bread for the world - the living bread – out of thanksgiving because it “it is through Jesus that we come to know a world filled with God’s abundance grace,”[iii] and out of thanksgiving we share ourselves with a world in need.
And it is a participatory and active sharing. God’s abundant grace provides us with the faith it takes to become the living bread. It is the kind of faith that doesn’t let our fears hold us back and that can end up transforming the world. Enough faith to hold up our five loaves and two fishes, our whole lives, to Christ and ask him to “Take, Bless, Break, and Give”. Faith that inspires people to go on service mission trips to repair houses in Appalachia during the summer heat while forgoing the creature comforts of home. Faith that moves people to consider starting a youth group out of their own memories and knowing the joy it can bring. Faith that makes place at a spaghetti dinner without requiring payment. Faith that knocks on the door of a neighbor that hasn’t been seen in a few weeks and asks “how are you?”
What are your loaves and fishes?
What are our loaves and fishes as a church?
What will we hold up to Christ to be taken, blessed, broken, and given so the entire community may know God’s abundant grace?
Nothing, absolutely nothing – no idea, no thought, no effort, no gift - is too small.
Whatever it is – it will be enough.
[i] The "Feeding of the 5,000", is reported in Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; and John 6:1-14. Additionally, there is a "Feeding of the 4,000", with seven loaves of bread and fish, recorded in Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9. The Gospels of Luke and John omit it.
[ii] Peter Eaton, “John 6:1-15: Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Gospels: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 171
[iii] Texts for Preaching, Year B: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV